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Cat abuse case puts spotlight on animal rights laws

After 11 days of medical care, Tea Tea (茶茶), a tabby in New Taipei City, succumbed to his injuries on Aug. 28.

He endured 13 hours of hell on Aug. 17 when his owner allegedly doused him with boiling water and beat him so hard with an umbrella that is bent.

Tea was a tool of manipulation for the suspect, surnamed Lee (黎), who had filmed the torture of the cat he had kept together with his ex-girlfriend to undertake to force her to reconcile.

Fan Shu-Hsien (范舒閑), who rushed to the rescue of Tea Tea, alongside other animal lovers and native police, said she couldn’t bear the sight when she arrived.

Tea was scalded so badly that he had lost tons of his fur and his ears were curled, Fan said.

The news has gone viral on social media and prompted a public outcry calling for Wang to be jailed, but experts say it’s difficult to hunt heavy punishment for animal abusers under the Animal Protection Act (動物保護法).

“I haven’t seen any case of animal cruelty end in penalties that can’t be commuted to a fine,” said Lu Chiu-yuan (呂秋遠), a lawyer who is representing Lee’s ex-girlfriend during a lawsuit against him.

According to the act, killing, deliberately hurting, or causing injury to an animal can cause a jail term of up to 2 years and a fine of NT$200,000 to NT$2 million (US$7,218 to US$72,176).

Many consider the punishment to be light because if a court sentences an offender to a jail term of up to 6 months for an offense that carries a maximum of 5 years, the sentence are often commuted to a fine of up to NT$3,000 for every day of the sentence.

Soon after Tea Tea’s situation was reported, a petition was launched on the general public Policy Online Participation Platform — which allows people to propose policy suggestions to the govt — arguing that the act is outdated and urging stricter punishment for animals abusers.

The petition had garnered nearly 44,000 signatures as of Friday — well above the edge of 5,000 signatures in 60 days, meaning the agency responsible of animal protection has got to respond within two months, or by Oct. 27.

The petition is being reviewed by Cheng Chu-ching (鄭祝菁), head of the Council of Agriculture’s Animal Protection Section, the central authority liable for such cases.

However, things is more complicated than what the general public thinks, Cheng said.

From a legal perspective, three major amendments were made to the act from 2015 to 2017, imposing heavier penalties on animal abusers, mainly within the wake of a shocking series of cat killings.

Macanese Chan Ho-Yeung (陳皓揚), a former National Taiwan college student, was convicted of brutally killing two cats in Taipei in 2015 and 2016.

The maximum jail term for animal abusers at the time was one year, with a fine of NT$100,000 to NT$1 million. it had been not until 2017 that the penalty was doubled.

Regardless, the judge didn’t give Chan the heaviest possible penalty.

In the ruling in 2016, he was given two concurrent six-month sentences for the 2 offenses and fined NT$150,000 and NT$250,000.

However, Chan was only required to pay NT$350,000 and serve a 10-month jail term, with the latter commutable to a fine of NT$600,000.

“The fundamental solution lies during a status being granted to animals in order that they’re not treated merely as objects,” Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan deputy chief executive Chen Yu-min (陳玉敏) said.

Once the law states that animals are not any longer objects, judges would have a stronger basis to impose heavier sentences, Chen said.

Besides the legal aspect, there’s the difficulty of enforcement.

Government data showed that there have been 6,462 animal cruelty cases reported from 2018 to last year, but 161 offenders, or 2.5 percent, were punished.

The low conviction rate as a result of improper enforcement, namely a scarcity of animal protection police, animal advocates said.

Cheng’s office said that there are three categories of individuals, either full-time or part-time staff, handling animal protection affairs: animal shelter staff, veterinarians stationed at shelters, and animal protection inspectors.

As of April 30, there have been only 102 full-time and 72 part-time inspectors across the country, the office said, adding that their status is vague.

In the case of pets, it’s one thing for inspectors to tend the proper to “check” on owners reported as abusers, and another thing to hold out these inspections.

“The inspectors cannot break in during an emergency, cannot arrest people, and don’t have enough knowledge or power to gather evidence,” it said.

This shows the importance of state structure.

Cheng said that local governments are tasked with finding animal protection inspectors, while a specialized police unit would require action by the Ministry of the inside.

Increased civic participation, including help from animal groups, is required to boost awareness about animal protection and curb abuses, she said.

Lu agreed that there are challenges faced by animal protection personnel which they ought to have increased powers and more access to resources.

“We got to take action now by pushing lawmakers to make better laws,” Lu said.

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